Confessions of a scaffolder

Maybe you’ve already noticed, in your drives by construction sites in the East York area: scaffolders are the first ones on and the last ones off a jobsite.

A typical scaffolder is armed with work boots, hardhat, safety gloves and glasses, hammer, level, tape-measure, wrench, “nippers” — and his wits.

The site could be a construction zone or, further afield, a chemical plant, power station, a mine or oil refinery — all of which I recently spent a great deal of time at.

Last June, I travelled to mid-western Canada to work as a scaffolder.

To be honest, before my trip I didn’t really have an idea about what scaffolding was or what scaffolders do. What I did know was the amount of money I could possibly make, which sounded dandy after two summers of low pay and unsteady work in Ontario.

So in case you’re like I was and don’t know, a scaffold is a temporary structure formed of poles, planks, etc., used by workers while building or repairing a house or other structure. Or at least that’s the definition the dictionary gave me when I looked it up before leaving.

Later, I found out that for me working as a scaffolder was something neither Oxford nor any source could define.

After four hours on a WestJet flight, I ended up on a couch at my older sister’s apartment in Edmonton. A week later, I started work at Steeplejack Industrial Group Inc., a scaffolding company based in Alberta.

A week after that, I found myself digging through piles of ledgers, standards, jacks, collars and other scaffolding equipment — while snowflakes brushed my cheeks.

The transition from summery Toronto to cold, grey Edmonton made me reconsider the entire trip. But it was at this point that I learned something not only about myself, but also about many labourers.

At the end of the day, which lasted 10 hours, the work had to be done, no matter what.

 “Give ‘er and get ‘er done,” was the motto on my jobsite.

Before the trip that now seems like more of an adventure, my experience with hard, manual labour was slim. That was never more evident than during the 30-odd swings it took for me to remove a rusty nail from a piece of plywood with a hammer. No joke.  

But luckily, my role as a first-year scaffolder was the same for any first-year scaffolder. The instruction was simple: grab whatever piece of equipment is requested from the workers off the ground and work as quickly as possible.

The people I worked with may view scaffolding in Alberta as an adventure of their own, albeit maybe a longer one than mine. Most of the men (and women too) whom I sweated alongside were from provinces outside Alberta. Many were from Newfoundland, Manitoba and Ontario. I even had the pleasure of working with Mike the scaffolder, friend of Joe the plumber and Larry the cable guy.

Along with the hard work ethic demonstrated by the different Canadians I met, their friendliness and coaching enhanced my time working in a situation I was unfamiliar with.

The experience showed first hand that everyone is a beginner at one point or another and that it is up to the more experienced to put themselves in the novices’ shoes and help them learn.

Sometimes the work itself may be uninteresting, but it is reassuring to know that in this country it doesn’t matter who you are or what your background is. Hard work pays off. And if there is a roadblock for these hard workers — for example, a journalism student trying to make some bucks scaffolding — those warm-hearted veterans are ready to lend a hand, and perhaps even a friendship.